The Bomber Generals
It is difficult to know where to begin in response to “A Changing of the Guard,” July, p. 60, except perhaps with the old cliche, “Every man has a right to his opinion; no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.” Major General Worden seemed almost breathless as he raced to make his points about the inadequacies of the inflexible, single-minded, strategic nuclear-driven SAC generals during the Cold War era. Many of Worden’s assessments are indeed factual, although his inflection in most instances is intentionally oblique. As he stated, “Proliferation of nuclear weaponry, deliverable by strategic bombers, gave air advocates what they saw as an arsenal of decisiveness.” What more could we ask? The declaratory policy of the Soviet Union was destruction of the United States and democratic governments worldwide. Gen. Curtis LeMay was awarded the responsibility to create a long-range nuclear deterrent force to hold the Soviets in check—and it worked for 45 years—until they capitulated. Indeed, “the bomber generals insisted upon clear-cut military supremacy of the kind seen in World War II.” And it worked!
LeMay and his “bomber generals” insisted on discipline, centralized management, yes, even “command posts,” and strict measurements and evaluations. How else would the nation want the Air Force to conduct the care, feeding, and employment of nuclear weapons? During the Cuban Crisis, “Kennedy settled for a negotiated withdrawal of Soviet missiles.” The fact that 60 or more SAC B-52 bombers fully loaded with nuclear weapons encircled the Soviet Union 24-hours-a-day until Khrushchev fully understood his situation assisted President Kennedy considerably in “settling the negotiations.” I was there, and the several hundred of us disciplined SAC Cold Warriors who flew those airborne alert sorties at the time can vividly recall sitting in orbit just off the Soviet coast waiting for the “go code” should it come. We patiently circled, listening to the communications traffic as we had to wait our turn to make our position reports “in the clear”—so that Ivan was aware of our presence, location, and intent. That worked, too!
With regard to the assertion that “SAC generally kept its people within the command for an entire career,” I did not find that to be true nor did thousands of other SAC professionals. I did spend 20 of my 31 years, gratefully so, in the command, but also an additional six years with the Defense Nuclear Agency, three years with the JCS (incidentally in the “SAC-dominated” JSTPS), a year in TAC, receiving a below-the-zone promotion as a result of the generosity of my “fighter pilot” commanders and even served a little time flying C-141s in MAC. … Perhaps many of us didn’t take time out to get a master’s, a doctorate, or [attend] senior service school, but there was ample time standing Cold War bomber, tanker, or missile alert to knock those out by correspondence—and we did. With regard to General Worden’s assessment of SAC in Vietnam: I don’t believe he was there, but perhaps an interview with a few former POWs would better inform him of who and what SAC B-52 raids led unequivocally to their release.
Lastly, the reference to the dismal and conciliatory Carter Administration and the strategic decisions thereof would have been better left out of his article. The American people soon learned and elected President Reagan who clearly understood the options to bring the Cold War to an end, restored the Carter-cancelled B-1 bomber, and moved on with the production of the B-2, and, interestingly, the venerable B-52, which I first began flying back in 1959 and which is still in the force today.
In closing, I had the distinct honor of meeting and participating in two meetings in the latter years with the long-since retired and still sage General LeMay, and I also served proudly under the tutelage of Generals Power, Ryan, Dougherty, and many other distinguished SAC generals beneath those stalwarts. What a great privilege and lifelong learning experience!
Time moves on and defense strategies evolve, but for anyone to demean and dismiss the valiant service of hundreds of thousands of dedicated, committed, and, yes, disciplined Strategic Air Command Cold Warriors and their distinguished leaders does a great disservice to the history and legacy of our Air Force.
Maj. Gen. Chris Adams,
Former Chief of Staff,
Strategic Air Command
Having read “A Changing of the Guard” several times, I feel compelled to respond to this article that does not portray the professional men and women who served in Strategic Air Command in a positive light. These dedicated professionals helped win the Cold War by their commitment and belief that deterrence was the only way to get the Soviet Union to back down.
I was not a “bomber general,” but I served over 16 years of my 31 years in the Air Force under some very fine SAC general officers who had one thing in mind—“take care of your people and they will take care of the mission.” As the first SAC senior enlisted advisor (1975-79), I served under Gen. Russell E. Dougherty and Gen. Richard Ellis and had many an opportunity during these years to sit in on the senior SAC staff meetings and listen to the concerns that these truly professional and dedicated general officers and their staff had for the command, its mission, and, more importantly, its people. I find it difficult to accept some of the things the author stated about the legendary figures that led SAC during some of the most difficult times in our nation’s history.
Although I never had the privilege to serve under General LeMay when he was CINCSAC, he was the first commander of any of the major Air Commands to establish a Noncommissioned Officers Academy so that the NCOs of SAC could have the opportunity to learn and develop their professional careers to the standards that he believed in. General LeMay also put the term “quality of life” into [use] by standing up and fighting for adequate housing both for single airmen and [airmen’s] families, child care facilities, recreational programs, visitation centers for the SAC alert facilities—just to name a few issues that were so necessary at the many remote SAC bases throughout the command. Yes, he was tough and demanded discipline from his commanders and others, because of the nature of the business—to prevent a nuclear holocaust. He was so respected by the enlisted men and women of SAC for his continuing efforts to improve their quality of life and for what he did during some of the most difficult years in the history of our country that, after his retirement, he was inducted into the Strategic Air Command Order of the Sword in 1980. This is the highest recognition that the enlisted men and women of SAC could bestow, not only upon General LeMay, but several other SAC general officers as well. In the eyes of many of us who had the honor to serve in SAC, they truly were “leaders among leaders and airmen among airmen.”
Again, in my opinion, the author did not give the thousands of individuals that served in this command the respect and dignity they so richly deserve. I was among the many SAC veterans, officer and enlisted, who witnessed the disestablishment of Strategic Air Command on June 1, 1992. Gen. Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it best: “You never let us down. You were always prepared, and the horror of World War III never came. You kept the peace, and the nation and free world will be forever grateful. Thank you, SAC.” It is sad that the author didn’t dwell on this subject versus the route he elected to take to put down this great command and its people.
CMSAF James M. McCoy,
Short articles can provide only limited context. Readers can find much more context and perspective in my full book, Rise of the Fighter Generals: The Problem of Air Force Leadership 1945-1982, Air University Press. For decades, SAC and its airmen admirably performed the primary mission of strategic nuclear deterrence, which was invaluable in the winning of the Cold War. The article’s thesis does not challenge that. However, some of SAC’s dominant characteristics influenced the broader Air Force in a way that did not serve the Air Force well as it faced new challenges in the era of Vietnam and Flexible Response. The Air Force, and any other large and diverse institution, still incurs great risk if one of its “groups” overdominates to the extent that it neglects other voices and perspectives within that institution.—Maj. Gen. R. Mike Worden